Some History is in Order

Yesterday, CBC News reported that the province of Manitoba and its Human Rights Board of Adjudication had denied Cody Zimmer’s application to have the full cost of his studies covered at Gallaudet University. Social media has been largely silent regarding this matter. I do not recall seeing a Facebook vlog or Twitter thread on this subject. In fact, what social media discussions I have seen and participated in have tended toward criticism of and indifference to Zimmer and his family—for not paying his $56,000 per annum way, for not pulling himself up by his bootstraps, for seeking what used to be available to some prospective deaf postsecondary students in Canada but is no longer, or not to the same degree.

I worry that for deaf communities, seeking access to higher education has become an exception when it used to be a norm, at least for some of us. In 2014, the Canadian Hearing Society reported a 70% increase since 2002 in deaf Ontario Disability Support Program recipients. The numbers of Canadian students at Gallaudet have declined from 119 in 1989—the year following the Deaf President Now protests—to 13 today, with all but one student coming from Ontario. (If my math is correct, this is a 91% drop in enrolment.) In statistical terms, this is known as a negative correlation. Mike Harris-era cuts to vocational rehabilitation supports for deaf students have been accompanied by expectations that deaf students are to get by with uneven and precarious access to often unqualified sign language interpreters in mainstream postsecondary classrooms, where they are often the only signing deaf student in their classes and program and faculty, if not the entire university or college. Since my own undergraduate days at the University of Toronto and since working at four different universities across Canada, I have not personally witnessed an increase in deaf students at Canadian postsecondary institutions. I can count on one hand the number of signing deaf students that I have taught or supervised over the course of a decade.

Moralistic hand-wringing over Zimmer’s request also overlooks the history of Canadian attendance at Gallaudet, starting in 1888 with one Michael James Madden of the Ontario School for the Deaf, Belleville, who received his B.Sc. in 1893 (Carbin, 1996). David Peikoff of Manitoba, who received his B.A. from Gallaudet in 1929, started the McDermid Scholarship Fund in 1928 to raise money for other deaf Canadian students to attend Gallaudet. In 1949, this became the Canadian Deaf Scholarship Fund under the Canadian Association of the Deaf. Eventually, some provincial governments across Canada began to provide vocational rehabilitation support for deaf students to attend Gallaudet. Today, however, only British Columbia, Ontario, and Nova Scotia provide funding for this purpose. The limitations of current Canadian government support for deaf students are evident in Gallaudet graduate Jasmin Simpson’s ongoing legal challenge of the Canada Student Loan program that results in some disabled students graduating with astronomically higher debts than nondisabled students.

We overlook the significance of losing a critical mass of university-educated deaf signers who, as in past decades, can take professional positions in our communities as teachers, lawyers, accountants, members of parliament, and deaf advocacy organization and service agency staff and board members. We overlook the importance of having deaf researchers and instructors in Canadian postsecondary institutions. We forget that deaf children and youth today continue to need educated first-language models in order to thrive. Investing in Canadian deaf students’ education reaps more awards than are visible at first glance. Gallaudet University provides essential resources and has immeasurable value for deaf people who have never attended this institution, myself included.

We overlook that according to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, education in sign language is a human right for deaf learners, including in tertiary education. This does not only mean providing a sign language interpreter in a mainstream classroom; such access and inclusion measures are often limited and illusory. Rather, environments that maximize academic and social development include instructors and students who communicate in sign language. As Patrick Kermit writes, “Inclusive communities must be communities where everyone has the opportunity to express, and to receive, recognition in the form of solidarity. But this might only truly work between peers.


Carbin, C. (1996). Deaf heritage in Canada: A distinctive, diverse, and enduring culture. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd.